The parable of the Pharisee
and the toll collector follows that of the persistent widow and the unjust
judge. Luke frames the parable with comments about being just or in right
relationship (translated “virtuous”) and justified (translated “at rights with
God”). It is addressed to “certain people” who will find a mirror image of
themselves in the first of the characters, the Pharisee. Historically, the
Pharisees were honorable people, well-versed in Jewish religious traditions and
faithful in observing the Law. They made up a very small percentage of the
population. In the gospels, they often appear as code for religious leadership
that is self-focused, contemptuous of others, and out of touch with the
struggle of ordinary people’s lives. In Luke, some of the Jesus’ harshest
condemnation is reserved for the Pharisees of the gospel.

The Pharisee goes up to the
Jerusalem Temple to pray. There is no surprise in
this. That is what Pharisees do. More surprising is the identification of the
other person who also heads for the Temple
to pray, a toll collector or tax agent, a man in the pay of the occupying
forces, not exactly a person to be trusted and certainly not one connected with
proper worship. The Pharisee prays “to himself” or “by himself” or “about
himself”: any one of the three translations is possible. He prays with his eyes
cast sideways towards his thieving prayer companion. He prides himself on going
beyond the prescriptions of the Law. The toll collector, in contrast, stands at
a distance, eyes cast down, beating his breast, acknowledging his need for
God’s mercy and recognizing God as the source of compassion and forgiveness.
For an audience who “have confidence in themselves that they are righteous”,
this portrait of the tax agent in right relationship with God is confronting.
For such people, being a tax agent is synonymous with being unrighteous.

The language of the toll
collector’s prayer, “God be merciful (hilasthēti)
to me a sinner”, evokes the prayer of a young man of Judah who, almost two
centuries before, had seen his brothers die for their faith and who was himself
facing death. The young man acknowledged the waywardness of his people, praying
that God would be merciful to them and deliver them from persecution (2
Maccabees 7:37). The toll collector of the Lukan parable is more in tune with
the faith tradition of his people than is its respected guardian, the Pharisee.
Once again, right relationship with God and others is less a matter of who we
are or what we do than the spirit in which we do it. There is no room for
self-righteousness in a gospel way of life. We all need to admit our failings
with humility, turn to God for forgiveness, and change our ways. Right now,
this is what we are called to do as a human community that has failed to
respect the integrity of the natural world and has exploited it for our own
selfish ends.  We can learn from the tax
collector.

Luke
18:9-14 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they
were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the
temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee,
standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other
people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast
twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing
far off, would not even  look up to
heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 
‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to
his home justified rather  than the
other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble
themselves will be exalted.”